The College of Charleston’s Shakespeare Project opened its 2006 production last Thursday night – Shakespeare’s King Lear, the sole entry this year in what has historically been a double-bill. Sadly, it was to a house of yawns and sighs. Lear is thought by many to be Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. The biggest tragedy in this case is that it wasn’t done proper justice.

It needs to be acknowledged up front that this is not the Royal Shakespeare Company, or even a semi-professional theatre troupe. These are student actors. With the exception of three Theatre Department faculty members and veteran actors, the cast is comprised of college kids tackling some of the most difficult dramatic roles ever written for the stage in any language, and they shouldn’t be held to unrealistic standards. But even by the standards of past Shakespeare Project efforts, this production is lacking. A mishmash of a cast, with both great and poor performances, and often unlevel direction by Todd McNerney result in a production that’s ultimately unsatisfying, despite the group’s obvious hard work and evident sincerity.

King Lear tells the story of a vain monarch who turns his back on his only loyal daughter because she speaks honestly to him, and is in turn betrayed by the two remaining daughters who offer insincere flattery. It’s a story rich with action, character, and heady, timeless themes. Unfortunately, many of the performances here are flat, relying more on gesture and forced facial expressions than on actual feeling and an emotional connection with the text. Mostly, the lines simply don’t have room to breathe.

Often lines are buried in overblown gesticulating. Sexual double-entendres, for instance, are generally illustrated through gesture alone; but we shouldn’t need to see a lot of thrusting in order to get the joke.

When Parry speaks, however, you listen. His speeches carry the full weight of a crushed, truly broken man. When he moves, you’re absorbed. His physicality expertly reflects his character’s journey. It’s a shame that his performance almost appears incongruous instead of terrific, simply in contrast to what is often going on around him onstage. Brent Laing as the loyal Kent, Wayne Wilson as Earl of Gloucester, Ryan Mitchell as Duke of Albany, and Brian Smith as Gloucester’s son Edgar turn in the better of the supporting performances.

But in the mire created by questionable direction and inarticulate and flat performances, the story’s wonderful depth and complexity become completely lost. Shakespeare provides subplots, histories, personalities, entwined love affairs, betrayals, and murders – the stuff of epics – and somehow it all flies by us.

Virjette LaCour’s costumes and Tricia Thelen’s rotating set support the stark and ancient realm the play is set in. John Thompson’s scratchy, creepy sound design seems well intended, but it’s too inconsistent to be genuinely evocative. John Olbrych’s lighting design is good, but rarely enough by itself. He gives us a sense of a storm, for instance, with lightning projected onto a screen. But that alone, combined with actors shivering and looking skyward, does not convey the gravity of what’s going on in what should be the play’s most powerful scene.

Shakespeare’s quick ending, typical in his tragedies, is here unfulfilling – we’re left with no real sense of the depth of the losses. Rather, the bodies of the dead characters onstage seem mere decoration, with no real weight.

McNerney and company have taken on a profoundly difficult play, and they’re to be congratulated for the sweep of their ambition. Ultimately, though, their production is much like Lear himself: flawed and unbalanced. –Jennifer Corley

(King Lear; running Aug. 31, Sept. 1-5 at 8 p.m., Sept. 3 at 3 p.m., $10-$15; Emmett Robinson Theatre, 54 St. Philip St.; 953-5604.)

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